Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the presidential election and it’s hard to see him running again in 2024, when he’ll be 82 years old. For over half a decade Bernie Sanders has been the driving organizing force of the American left. Millions of people who would otherwise opt out of electoral politics were energized by Bernie’s message and campaign. A campaign which has been a boon for groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and leftist organizing of all stripes. However the question remains, what is to be done now that Bernie has dropped out?
The options by and large center around the question whether or not the left should work within the Democratic Party or build something else entirely. We’ll start with the build something else entirely and work our way to influence the party strategies. That’s not to say building something else is our suggested path, I’ll just touch on those first. It should also be said this article only covers what to do as far as voting in 2020 is concerned. It must always be stated, voting is the bare minimum, it’s not activism, and most of the time it doesn’t build power. However, we at Millennial Review believe that power must be built via all available avenues so the electoral sphere and what to do in it is still an important discussion to have. Again though, the real on the groundwork of changing society involves a lot more than voting so keep that in mind when reading the following discussion.
Option 1: Get on the Howie Hawkins Train and Vote Green Party
For many on the left the Green Party is the obvious third party vehicle for the Bernie Sanders movement. In 2016 Jill Stein received 1.07% of the popular vote, down from Ralph Nader’s high water mark of 2.7% in 2000. Now Howie Hawkins has assumed the Green Party mantle and the question is, can he use the success of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign to help build the Green Party. More importantly can he surpass the popularity of a figure like Ralph Nader and give the Green Party more mainstream credibility than it currently has.
The problem many of the left have with the Green Party is its inability to field any sort of organizational structure outside a few months every four years for a presidential campaign. While there are some notable down ballot Green Party candidates, such as Kenneth Mejia, those results do not seem any more fruitful than those of groups like Justice Democrats working within the Democratic Party. Just looking at the track record of a group like Justice Democrats and that of the Green Party, one has actually secured congressional seats. The other has not, despite significant national attention and resources devoted to the cause every four years.
To temper this critique, it must be said that building a viable third party is structurally very difficult in the United States. However, the underlying strategic problem with turning the Green Party into a presidential vehicle only serves to reinforce those structural difficulties. First past the post voting, lack of access to presidential debates, basically media attention, and various other structural deficiencies plague all third party runs. Combined with an overreliance on presidential campaigns, problems like lack of access to the debates and no media attention become a fatal flaw for the Green Party. Until the Green Party significantly changes their electoral strategy and how they allocate resources, it’s difficult to see working within the Green Party as a viable path to power.
Option 2: Build a Different Third Party Outside the Green Party
There is another option outside the Green Party which seems to have some sway, namely building a worker’s/labor party to unite the left. While this escapes some of the baggage and strategic problems the Green Party faces, it’s not at all clear it’s a more viable option than the Green Party or working within the Democratic Party. There are a number of ostensibly left parties that do significantly worse than even the Green Party year after year. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers World Party, the Socialist Party USA, the American Solidarity Party, and the Socialist Equality Party all ran in the 2016 presidential election and all received less than .10% of the vote. That’s not to take away from the important work these organizations do outside the electoral sphere, but it must be highlighted how poorly all these ostensibly left non-Green Party options have performed.
The real hurdle with building a new left party is finding a figurehead to organize the Bernie Sanders left under a new banner. Obviously Bernie Sanders is the obvious first choice, but has consistently ruled out doing so. Congressional Democrats like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are obvious second choices, but all seem dedicated to a strategy of working within the Democratic Party. Absent some sort of national organizing force, it seems any effort to build an alternative left party is even more futile than working within the Green Party as these other parties do not even offer the edifice of a previous Nader or Stein campaign.
That said, there are signs of life in electoral vehicles such as Socialist Alternative, which has fielded notable candidates such as Kshama Sawant who won a seat on the Seattle City Council. From her city council seat Sawant has provided meaningful opposition against Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and has generally pushed a left agenda for the people of Seattle. That is a valuable contribution taking place outside the Democratic Party and might signal a viable option on the local level. Breaking with the Democratic Party in a strategic manner to support local candidates running under the Socialist Alternative banner, or others, could be a useful strategy. However it is likely best used on a case by case basis, but the same could be said for working within the Democratic Party as well. And that’s the option we will turn to next.
Option 3: Don’t Vote for Joe Biden and Continue Organizing to Take Over the Democratic Party
Full disclosure, this is probably my favorite of the options, however unsatisfying it might still be. The problems plaguing third party runs are difficult to overcome, which is probably why Bernie Sanders opted to work within the Democratic Party to begin with. Groups like Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America have shown the promise of selectively engaging with the Democratic Party on a candidate by candidate basis. This strategy leaves time to engage in other meaningful forms of activism, like building labor power and mutual aid, while also keeping leftists engaged in electoral politics. Not only does it keep leftists engaged in electoral politics but it does so in a way that leaves taking over the Democratic Party a viable option.
In some ways, that’s the real question being asked by all of these options. Should the left work within the Democratic Party, or should they forge ahead and build their own electoral vehicle. For many of the structural reasons discussed above building an electoral vehicle is difficult work and taking over the Democratic Party provides a ready made national platform that competes in almost every election in every state. Changing the politics of that institution could be monumental, but it will take savvy organizing that sometimes involves veering away from the Democratic Party and to other viable candidates running under banners such as that of Socialist Alternative or the Green Party.
There is a case to be made that this election is one of those elections where the left should take their vote and give it to a candidate running under another banner.
Option 4: Vote for Joe Biden and Continue Organizing to Take Over the Democratic Party
This option is effectively the same as Option 3, obviously with the caveat that a vote is cast for Joe Biden. Ultimately that vote is just an admission that voting for president is actually a fairly inconsequential act and the bare minimum of political activism. That said, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are very different candidates and there is certainly a damage control argument to be made for Joe Biden.
Take the Trump administration EPA, which has been gutted and all but ceased enforcement during the pandemic. There’s also Trump’s pandemic push to halt all immigration. Trump and Mitch McConnell have stacked the federal judiciary with far right judges hand picked by the Federalist Society. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact those judicial appointments will have. Four more years to stack the courts, with a high likelihood of another Supreme Court seat, voting for the court is a totally reasonable proposition.
In many ways, which we’ve discussed elsewhere, Joe Biden is totally inadequate. It’s important to keep that in mind and do what can be done to push him left and hold him accountable. Despite that there is still a case to be made for voting for Joe Biden. It’s not an easy one for those on the left to make, it won’t win over everyone, but Joe Biden is demonstrably better than Donald Trump. But that’s about the lowest bar imaginable so take it for what it’s worth.
A problem with this position is it forfeits whatever leverage voting (or not voting) gives the left. It’s an open question whether left voters could effectively organize and send a message to the party to begin with. Obviously this article discusses various options, which kind of highlights the difficulty in getting everyone on board. Also, the institutional Democratic Party clearly blames the left for their loss in 2016, Neera Tanden and others will attack Jill Stein voters in Michigan whenever given the chance. And it’s not at all clear that loss has taught the Democrats anything. In fact Joe Biden is even more conservative than Hillary Clinton. So it’s not clear whether voting against Joe Biden will even do anything outside of make a personal moral statement, while voting for him, especially in a swing state, does have real damage control value.
That said, I probably won’t vote for Joe Biden, I just think there is a case to be made.
Option 5: Don’t Vote, Write in Bernie, or Leave the Presidential Ballot Blank
In 2016 a record number of voters on both sides of the aisle opted to leave the presidential ballot blank and only voted in down ballot races. It seems reasonable to assume that 2020 will see a lot of these voters as well. Joe Biden is marginally more popular than Hillary Clinton, but he and Donald Trump are still both broadly unpopular. Which means a lot of people will choose not to vote, write in a candidate like Bernie or the perennial Mickey Mouse vote, or just leave the presidential ballot blank and vote down-ballot.
Like I said above, I don’t really see “sending a message” working in any meaningful way. Over 45% of potential voters did not vote in 2016. It seems even more difficult to send a message by not voting, when there is no real way to differentiate between people who were turned off by Joe Biden specifically and those who are just disenfranchised and skeptical of the political system more generally. Not voting at all makes a certain moral personal statement about one’s distaste for the political system broadly. If you can’t vote for a rapist and don’t see any useful opportunities down-ballot, I guess it’s justified. However, it seems to understate the importance of getting a third party to 5% in the polls to secure national funding, or support marginally better down-ballot candidates.
Writing in Bernie Sanders sends a more specific message than voting for a third party, however there is a mobilization problem in that it will be very difficult to get people to consolidate around a write in vote. Additionally, writing in a candidate is only an option in 43 states. While that’s a smaller hiccup than the general mobilization problem, these two things combine to make this a somewhat implausible option. If those challenges could be overcome, it is the most explicit way of telling the Democratic Party, “we want Bernie Sanders the vision he represents.” Which might be a more effective message than voting third party, however again, it’s unclear whether the organizational challenges can be overcome to actually send that message.
Finally, not voting in the presidential election but voting down ballot is an option as well. This provides the ability to vet down ballot candidates and potentially support upstart left challengers. It also provides the option to push Democrats over the edge in swing districts. Both are important, one in building left power, the other for damage control purposes. This is my preferred option probably, but it’s not really clear it’s more useful than voting third party or writing in Bernie Sanders.
Option 6: Hello Accelerationism, Voting for Donald Trump
Depending on the estimate used, in 2016 some 12% to 25% of Bernie Sanders voters cast a vote for Donald Trump. The goals of these voters needs to be examined on a case by case basis. There were undoubtedly some people who felt Hillary Clinton was more hawkish than Donald Trump. There were voters who felt Donald Trump was better on trade. There were voters who really fell for the right wing populist schtick and felt Trump was genuinely the better choice. There was also some small number of Bernie supporters who voted for Trump just as a gesture toward burning it all down.
This is an option that has all the downsides of “sending a message” with the added “you helped Trump win” factor. There isn’t really an upside to this option unless you genuinely believe Trump is a better option or you genuinely believe in the value of accelerationism. Personally, the only case where I see a plausible accelerationist argument is the courts. As it stands now liberals broadly support packing the court or some form of structural reform. It seems as though Trump replacing Ruth Badger Ginsburg would heighten that desire, and maybe even create the political pressure to force Democrats to actually pursue those reforms. The only reason the case works for the courts, in my view, is just how stacked lower courts have become in the Trump era, which is a bigger problem than the two Supreme Court seats conservatives stole.
There is also the argument that Donald Trump winning will be better for the left. Which basically posits that running a left candidate in 2024 is more useful than deactivating the left for 8 years of Joe Biden. If there was an obvious left standard bearer for 2024 this speculation might ring true. However there is no clear figure head. And it’s not clear that 4 more years of Trump doesn’t push Democrats even further right, as it did from 2016 to 2020 replacing Hillary Clinton with Joe Biden. Either argument, the accelerationist argument or the Joe Biden deactivation argument, has a hard time overcoming the complicity inherent in voting for Trump.
The Main Takeaway: There Really Isn’t A Good Option
The fact is, seizing state power in the United States, will be a slog. Bernie Sanders provided a shred of hope that we could skip the step of building a deep national bench, running in cities and congressional districts across the country. However, with that option off the table, the left needs to decide whether to work within the Democratic Party, build something else, and who to vote for in the meantime. None of the options on the table replace Bernie Sanders, but hopefully the above discussion has helped make sense of what is on offer and the utility in each case.